Happy days for the art of photography


The advent of photography was widely regarded as heralding the death of painting. That didn't quite happen, though in any imagined contest to be the medium of visual communication, painting would quickly be elbowed to the sidelines. Photographs, allied to the immensely capable technologies of mechanical and electronic reproduction, didn't so much provide a visual commentary on the 20th century as threaten to swamp it in a tide of imagery. Photography is protean, unruly, democratic and ubiquitous.

Initially, art photography often meant arty photography, and the relationship between fine art and the photograph was fraught and difficult, until it became clear, only in the past quarter century, that photography had become an indispensable part of fine art practice, and largely on its own terms. At the moment, it seems digital media will generate a revolution in photography, yet in recent years the most significant development in photography brings it right back to its roots as a medium of record.

Photographers and artists have discovered, or re-discovered, the medium's extraordinary potential not just for representing but for interrogating the real world in ways that go beyond the traditional categories of the art photograph or photojournalism. This doesn't amount to the creation of any one stylistic orthodoxy, given that it encompasses both the cool objectivity of Andreas Gursky and the extreme subjectivity of Nan Goldin. But it has injected new life into the medium.

It's a good time, as well, for Source, the Irish Photographic Review, a quarterly that has quietly matured into a beautifully produced and editorially energetic publication, generous in its use of colour. Supported by both the Northern and Southern Arts Councils and other sponsors, it is extremely good value at £3 an issue.

Its current, spring issue has a striking cover: one of Trish Morrissey's genuinely "arresting" (as the magazine accurately says) images of women with facial hair. These photographs are intriguingly juxtaposed with another set of portraits, those of golfers, by David Robinson. Like this implied invitation to consider what is normal, themes emerge in a fairly relaxed way. Colm Toibin's text complements Dara McGrath's panoramic views of some European border posts, and these, in turn, lead on to Tony O'Shea's powerful black-and-white photographs of Republicans which raise the issue of the border between North and South here.

Paul Seawright began photographing in Northern Ireland but has moved on to deal with a wider context. The winter issue of Source carried some of his photographs of the anomalous, slightly threatening urban spaces common to all large cities, but Jonathan Olley's remarkable studies of RUC barracks and observation posts, which make interesting viewing in the light of the Patten Commission recommendation that police buildings should, as far as possible, have the appearance of ordinary buildings.

The editorial of the winter issue recalled David Lee's assessment of the state of Irish photography in 1992. He listed seven factors needed to foster its development, including an honours degree course (Dun Laoghaire DIT now runs an art photography degree course), a journal, a photographic book shop, a book publisher, an institutional collector of photography and the development of the Gallery of Photography. All of these are now in existence, the editorial noted, bar a book publisher.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Royal Hospital Donnybrook has built up a substantial collection of contemporary art under the auspices of its Concourse Art Scheme. The Scheme was kick-started by the donation of some paintings by the Contemporary Irish Art Society and then continued by means of other donations, funds from the Hospital Clothes Shop and various other sources. Now the Friends of the Royal Hospital Donnybrook has published a catalogue, which sells for £5, listing all three dozen works with their location in the hospital and illustrating 12 of them together with notes on the artists. The collection ranges far and wide, and includes fine works by Charles Brady, Tony O'Malley, Jane O'Malley, Sean McSweeney, Patrick Collins, Maria Simonds-Gooding, Mary Lohan, Michael Coleman and many other first-rate artists.